VAUGHAN WILLIAMS: Symphony No. 2, 'London' / The Wasps Overture (Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra/ Kees Bakels) (Naxos: 8.550734)
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Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872 - 1958)
A London Symphony (Symphony No.2)
Overture: The Wasps
Ralph Vaughan Williams was born in the Gloucestershire village of Down Ampneyin 1872, the son of a clergyman. His ancestry on both his father's and mother'sside was of some intellectual distinction. His father was descended from afamily eminent in the law, while his maternal grandfather was a Wedgwood and hisgrandmother a Darwin. On the death of his father in 1875 the family moved tolive with his mother's father at Leith Hill Place in Surrey. As a child VaughanWilliams learned the piano and the violin and received a conventional uppermiddle class education at Charterhouse, after which he delayed entry toCambridge, preferring instead to study at the Royal College of Music, where histeachers included Hubert Parry and Walter Parratt, later Master of the Queen'sMusick, both soon to be knighted. In 1892 he took up his place at TrinityCollege, Cambridge, where he read History, but took composition lessons fromCharles Wood. After graduation in both Music and History, he returned to theRoyal College, where he studied composition with Stanford, and, perhaps moreIimportant, became a friend of a fellow-student Gustav Holst. The friendshipwith Holst was to prove of great importance in frank exchanges of views on oneanother's compositions in the years following.
In 1897 Vaughan Williams married and took the opportunity to visit Berlin,where he had lessons from Max Bruch and widened his musical experience. InEngland he turned his attention to the collection of folk-music in variousregions of the country, an interest that materially influenced the shape of hismusical language. In 1908 he went to Paris to take lessons, particularly inorchestration, from Ravel, and had by now begun to make a reputation for himselfas a composer, not least with the first performance in 1910 of his firstsymphony, A Sea Symphony, setting words by Walt Whitman, and his Fantasia ona Theme of Thomas Tallis in the same year. The even tenor of his life wasinterrupted by the war, when he enlisted at once in the Royal Army MedicalCorps. 1914 was also the year of A London Symphony and of his rhapsodicwork for violin and orchestra, A Lark Ascending. Three years later, afterservice in Salonica that seemed to him ineffective, he took a commission in theRoyal Garrison Artillery and was posted to France, where he was also able tomake some use of his abilities as a musician.
After the war Vaughan Williams returned to the Royal College of Music, now asa professor of composition, a position he retained until 1938. In these years hecame to occupy a commanding position in the musical life of the country, with aseries of compositions that seemed essentially English, the apparent successorof Elgar, although his musical language was markedly different. The second warbrought the challenge of composition for the cinema, with notable scores for The49th Parallel in 1940 and a number of other films, culminating in 1949 inmusic for the film Scott of the Antarctic, the basis of his later SinfoniaAntarctica, the seventh of his nine symphonies. Other works of the last decadeof his life included two more symphonies, the opera The Pilgrim's Progress,a violin sonata and concertos for harmonica and for tuba, remarkable adventuresfor an octogenarian. He died in August 1958, four months after the firstperformance of his last symphony.
The second of the symphonies of Vaughan Williams, A London Symphony,composed, as he himself said, by a Londoner, owed its origin to theencouragement of George Butterworth. It was he who urged Vaughan Williams toattempt a symphony, against his original intentions and inclination. There hadbeen earlier sketches for a symphony, but these had been abandoned. Plans hadbeen made, however, for a symphonic poem on the theme of London, and thismaterial the composer decided to recast in symphonic form. The work was givenits first performance under Geoffrey Toye in 1914, to undergo slight changes inthe war years and revision for a further performance in 1920 under AlbertCoates. There were later revisions in subsequent years, notably for performancesunder Sir Thomas Beecham in the 1930s.
In A London Symphony Vaughan Williams offers, often with thematicmaterial seemingly derived from the English countryside as much as from thestreets of the city, a busy picture of the English capital. The symphony isscored for a large orchestra of piccolo, three flutes, oboes, cor anglais, twoclarinets, bass clarinet, bassoons and double bassoon, four horns, pairs oftrumpets and cornets, three trombones and tuba, and a percussion section oftimpani, side-drum, triangle, bass drum, cymbals and glockenspiel, with twoharps and strings. The work opens with what might be mistaken for a regular pea-souper,bearing marked similarities, as Constant Lambert pointed out, to Debussy's Lamer. The sound of Big Ben, in harp harmonics, leads to an Allegro risolutoin which the city awakes with a rich medley of thematic material that suggeststhe varied life of London, with an added nautical flavour. The symphonicexposition is followed by the development of further themes and thetransformation of earlier melodies, the recapitulation leading to a greatclimax, after a quiet opening.
The second movement, marked Lento, introduces a cor anglais solo above arichly harmonized string accompaniment, a traditional melody, it would appear,complemented by the lavender-seller's street-cry later in a movement that isbrought to a hushed conclusion by a solo viola. This is followed by a Scherzo, aNocturne only in the sense that it provides a lively enough picture at first ofnight-life in an unsleeping London, with themes and fragments of themes, as wellas mouth-organ and street barrel-organ heard in the Trio, a reminiscence perhapsof Stravinsky's Butter Fair in Petrushka, before the city eventuallysleeps and all lies still. The last movement, with its echoes of the first,brings London awake again, with a stirring march. The sound of Big Benintroduces a final Epilogue in which the mists once again descend and a soloviolin leads the way to the final string chords, dying away to nothing.
The incidental music by Vaughan Williams for Aristophanes' comedy TheWasps was written in 1909 for an undergraduate production at Cambridge,where a curiously English tradition of classical Greek drama in the originallanguage is still jealously guarded. The play itself, although it has a chorusof old men buzzing like wasps, is a satirical attack on the political leaders ofAthens in the late fifth century B.C.. Here the insects of the title are old menwith a mania for jury-service and the kitchen utensils that march past infurther incidental music for the play are participants in a mock-trial, designedto dissuade the protagonist's father, Procleon, from his mania. The composerdrew from the originally more extensive vocal and instrumental music for theplay a suite of five movements, of which the Overture is most often heard. Thisopens with the buzzing of the litigious maniacs, but proceeds to a more solidlyEnglish form of music in a work couched in traditional tripartite sonata-form.
Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra
The Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra was founded on 22nd May 1893 by DanGodfrey, the son of a Victorian band-master. At first it was known as theBournemouth Municipal Orchestra and provided music for one of the mostprosperous resorts on the South coast of England. Dan Godfrey served asprincipal conductor for the next forty years and established one of the mostfamous orchestras in Great Britain. Since then the orchestra has worked under as